Friday, February 19, 2016

US airstrike destroys ISIS training camp in Libya. AP.

ISIS Islamic Police officers. AP

The United States has conducted an airstrike in Libya that has destroyed an ISIS training camp and killed at least 40 people, including a major leader. AP. As many as 60 ISIS fighters were at the camp when a F-15 from Europe destroyed the camp. The leader, Noureddine Chouchane, is believed to have been killed in the strike. Chouchane was a high ranking facilitator and a Tunisian national. His role was recruiting fighters, creating ISIS bases and perhaps even planing terrorist attacks. The strike took place near the Tunisian border in the city of Sabratha. The city serves both as a major hub for ISIS fighters making their way to ISIS strongholds in the eastern half of the country, but as a major hub for the migrant waves heading into Europe. The airstrike does not mean that there will be a major uptick in operations in Libya as it is being described as an attack of opportunity. Though US and European special forces are active in the country, US President Barack Obama has refused to launch a major air campaign due to worries over the instability in the country caused by having two competing governments. 

My Comment:
I think that the Associated Press and other news agencies are downplaying the threat that this training camp posed. Given the camps location, not only next to Tunisia, but on the main route that migrants are making it to Europe, the threat was massive. I would not be surprised at all if these fighters were being trained for a terrorist attack. I can't know that for sure, but my guess is that the timing of this attack indicates that this base was a major threat. 

There are a couple of targets they could have been after. The most simple one would be Tunisia. ISIS has pulled off three major terrorist attacks in that country, and they know that they can be effective there. Two of those attacks, the Bardo Museam attack and the Sousse attack, killed dozens of westerners and are generally considered to be one of ISIS's more spectacular attacks. The third, a major bombing right in the capital, didn't get nearly as much press, but it did send a message to Tunisia that they are vulnerable. So vulnerable that the Tunisians are building a security wall on the border with Libya, both to keep ISIS out, but to also keep local militants from joining ISIS across the border. (hmm, building a wall to prevent terrorist infiltration, where have I heard that before? Is it still "racist" if the Tunisians do it?)

Certainly, another major attack in Tunisia would be tragic, but I doubt that is anyone's main concern here. The much greater threat is possible attacks in Europe. Getting the newly trained ISIS fighters into Europe would be largely academic at this point for this particular training camp. They would just have to wait a few months for the traffic to pick up again and then just blend in with the migrants. Sabratha is a major hub for people trying to get to Europe, so the opportunity is there. Getting weapons and explosives into Europe would be the most difficult thing, so I am guessing that they would just have to buy weapons there, which is where the plot would most likely fall apart. I do think that if they had made it into the country there is a decent chance that they could pull something off. 

If either of these possible plans had been pulled off, it would have been a disaster, and I think this airstrike may have slightly lowered the risk of a major terrorist attack in both Tunisia and Europe. The destruction of this camp is a major accomplishment and for once I will give the Obama administration a little credit. Not only was the threat of a terrorist attack originating from this camp rather severe, the camp was likely serving other purposes as well. Sarbatha is also a major artery for North African militants from Tunisia and Algeria joining ISIS in Libya. As ISIS has expanded in Libya they have become reliant on these new recruits to grow their numbers. Every day more militants arrive to join up with the 5,000 or so ISIS fighters that are already in the country. Perhaps this strike will slow the numbers of  new fighters down. Destroying this camp was a very good thing, and I would like to see more decisive strikes like this one. 

As for Libya itself, it is disturbing how active ISIS is in the country. In about a year they have expanded from a toe hold to controlling a huge strip of land in the middle of the countries coast line as well has having a major presence in Benghazi, Derna and even in Tripoli itself. The fact that they have enough of a presence in a place like Sabratha, which is far from their major strongholds in the east and center parts of the country, shows that they can operate almost everywhere in the country. With Libya as fragmented as it is, it seems as though ISIS is having an easy time expanding and operating throughout the country. The rapid pace reminds me of how quickly they were able to take over Iraq back in 2014, a victory that still hasn't been reversed. Perhaps in time, ISIS will be able to expand so much in Libya, it will no longer matter if ISIS is defeated in Syria and Iraq. Instead of a backup base and minor theater in the global war against ISIS, Libya may end up being the main stage... 

It is unfortunate that this attack seems like it will be a one-off strike. There just seems to be no will from any of the players involved in this drama to actually take ISIS seriously, even though the threat is so obvious and so severe. The Libyan governments are divided, and the other militias on the ground, some of them jihadists themselves, are too busy fighting each other to really focus on ISIS. And Barack Obama has no stomach for yet another major military deployment during the last year of his presidency. To be perfectly honest, our military is so overworked and over deployed in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, with more forces tied down by North Korea, I am starting to wonder if we are even capable of mounting an effective campaign. 

That leaves one option and I am surprised that nobody else is calling for this. The Europeans need to step up and take care of Libya. I know France and the United Kingdom are tied down with their military operations in the Middle East and Africa, but there are other countries in Europe that could help out. The Italians and the Germans, who are especially threatened by ISIS bases in Libya, should do their part as well. They haven't contributed nearly as much as our other coalition partners. That isn't to say that they aren't helping, but given the threat that Libya is posing, it would be nice if they were to launch a major campaign as well. In addition to whatever Europe is doing in Libya right now, I would recommend that they start an air campaign in the country as soon as possible. 

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